Was Dale Earnhardt the best Nascar driver ever?
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Someone placed three small white angel figurines at the foot of the Dale Earnhardt statue that stands outside of Daytona International Speedway.
Near the statue was a lone yellow rose in a small glass vase, with a black ribbon tied around it. On the ribbon was written one word: "forever." Members of the team Earnhardt once drove for, Richard Childress Racing, wore black No. 3 hats as they worked on cars in the garage area.
Subtly but surely, fans and NASCAR competitors remembered the 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's death, which fell Friday.
"It's just a sad day in racing," said 62-year-old Nita Powell, an Earnhardt fan who came to Daytona from Sand Lake, Mich.
More tributes will come during Sunday's Daytona 500.
The Fox television broadcast team will fall silent during lap No. 3, while fans are expected to hold up three fingers in tribute — much as they did at every race in the immediate aftermath of Earnhardt's death in 2001.
It will be the first time attending the Daytona 500 for Robert Baker, an Earnhardt fan from Canton, Ohio. For Baker, it just felt right to be there in person.
And despite the dour anniversary, he didn't feel sad when he got to the racetrack. The sun was out, the people were friendly and he was getting ready for the race.
"I've always wanted to come down to the Daytona 500," the 65-year-old said. "Being the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt's death, it's really special, extra special for me."
Fans still remember where they were on that day in 2001, and how they found out the shocking news that Earnhardt had been killed. The wreck hadn't looked that violent — and wasn't Earnhardt invincible?
"You're not going to hurt that guy," said 52-year-old Greg Walton, an Earnhardt fan who lives near Santa Barbara, Calif. "He drove with a broke back."
And he had walked away from so many wrecks that appeared so much worse.
"There were so many worse," Walton said. "I can remember the time when he flipped, the car rolled, and he gets out of the car saying, 'Hey, does it start back up?'"
A decade after Earnhardt's death, his loyal fans take solace in the fact that his accident was the catalyst for a safety revolution in the sport.
"We're still racing, and thankfully nobody's been killed since his death," said Jody Scheckel, an Earnhardt fan from Eustis, Fla. "Obviously, we were able to gain from his death, and take the knowledge from that and make the drivers safer. That's the most important thing."
While NASCAR actually experienced a surge in popularity in the immediate aftermath of Earnhardt's death, Walton believes the sport lost something it still hasn't replaced.
"With the economy, they know they've lost a lot of fans," Walton said. "They're trying to get the fans back in, and he was a big market draw for them."
And no one driver has risen up to fully replace him.
"Jimmie Johnson's won the championships, but he doesn't have the fan following," Walton said. "They tried to get a couple of rivalries going. But until last year, NASCAR kept trying to (say), 'Be nice, guys, be nice.' You didn't have that bumping and banging like back Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace."
Walton now roots for Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, and wants NASCAR drivers to mix it up more often.
"Oh, yeah, it's part of the sport," Walton said. "Be out there, be the driver, be people. Don't be cookie-cutter. It's not a modeling session."
Other Earnhardt fans have had trouble finding a new driver to root for.
Baker has been a NASCAR fan since the mid-80s and still watches nearly every week — but he still hasn't found a new favorite, at least not one who grabbed his attention the way Earnhardt did.
"I don't really have anyone in particular," Baker said. "I like Junior and (Kevin) Harvick. Junior, he's had a rough last couple years since he's been with Hendrick, but hopefully things will turn around."
Most fans of Earnhardt Sr. gravitated toward Earnhardt Jr. — but not all of them stayed.
Earnhardt had a messy parting of ways with his stepmother, Teresa, who took charge of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team in the wake of Earnhardt Sr.'s death. Earnhardt eventually went to Hendrick Motorsports, but has struggled on the track in recent years.
"I was a die-hard Junior fan, but I don't support Hendrick Motorsports," Scheckel said. "Just because they're not NASCAR to me. They're making it more of a white-collar sport, taking away from what NASCAR's all about, a blue-collar, working man's sport."
Scheckel now roots for Harvick, the driver who replaced Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing.
"I went to Kevin because I like his personality, I like the way he races," Scheckel said. "He's a gritty driver, and I enjoy the way he puts on a show."
Baker was surprised that Earnhardt left DEI, the team his father built.
"He and his (stepmother) had some differences there," Baker said. "And I never really expected him to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc., but things happen, things change and it seems weird to see him with Hendrick now, but things happen and you've got to go on with your life."
And if Earnhardt Jr. were to win on Sunday?
"I think for a lot of people, it would really be special," Baker said.